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How High Can He Fly?

On the basketball court, Michael Finley’s a smooth, slam-dunking monster on a fast track to NBA stardom. But there are other sides to him that most fans never get to know.

By Chuck Nowlen
Published January, 1995
Copyright 1995, Madison Magazine


If you haven’t seen Michael Finley for a while, take it from me: He’s no longer a lanky, sky-walking greyhound with toothpicks for arms.

Instead, he’s got thick, sinewy tree trunks – the arms of a weight-room rat, which he’s been for the last two or three years, especially during the offseason. No wonder the nation’s college hoops minds think this six-foot-seven All American could be a monster in the NBA.

Baggy jersey, oversized shorts and socks that barely reach his shoe tops: These, if anything, are what still make him look thinner than he is when he’s working butter-smooth alchemy on the Wisconsin Badgers’ basketball court.

Then – POW! – he’s nailing a power dunk over some burly center – a rim-snapping, knees-up, “Eat that, chump!” jam. It contorts his entire face into a vicious warrior’s taunt.

So, yes, there IS an animal inside Michael Finley, the Badgers’ first pre-season All American since the days of the two-hand set shot. There’s a predatory, “I’m in charge here” aura about him from the moment he laces up his black Nikes and steps onto the floor.

You can see it in his defense. You can see it in his constant hustle. You can even see it sometimes when he’s on the bench at the end of a preseason blowout win: Finley, the acknowledged team leader, will be the starter who’s still jumping up and screaming like a wild man as he watches the second-stringers basically mop up.

But then the game is over and – POOF! – the animal is simply nowhere to be found. What you see instead is a laid-back young man who’s mature beyond his years – extremely goal-oriented and apparently more than a match for all the hype that surrounds him.

Finley, cordial and soft-spoken as we chat in his Randall Street living room, describes his off-court demeanor this way: “There’s a side of me that only comes out on the basketball court. Off the court, if people see me, they’d be surprised at how much I can get into the game.”

His mother, Bertha Finley, who worked two jobs to raise Michael and two daughters as a single parent, expands on her son, who stands to be worth about as much as a respectably sized corporation next year as a pro:

“He’s very quiet, but he’s thinking all the time. Yes, he really does only let his emotions show when he’s out there playing basketball. … He’s 21 years old, and I can tell you that in all those years, he and I have never – never ever – exchanged cross words at all.”

Indeed, as you get to know Michael Finley, which is no easy task for a stranger, you find that there is much more to this thoroughbred athlete than meets a basketball fan’s narrow eye.

Did you know, for example, that he was a National Honor Society student in high school?

Did you know that if he hadn’t been a basketball star, he’d probably still be headed straight to the top in the world of business and finance?

You wouldn’t know, possibly, even if you asked him. I can tell you from personal experience that getting him to run his mouth about himself is about as easy as scrubbing the Field House floor with a sweat band.

“I don’t want to be seen as the stereotypical jock with a big ego,” Finley explains in measured words during yet another media interview. (The day before, it had been with the Los Angeles Times – and the Badgers’ 1994-95 season hadn’t even begun yet.) “In the long run, what goes around comes around. If you’ve got an ego, it might just come back to haunt you.”

Besides, there are plenty of others out there to sing his praises for him – and we’ll forget, for the moment, hoops-only people like TV analyst Dick Vitale, who once said: “When you talk about stars, I think the most underrated  player in America is Wisconsin’s Michael Finley.”

Mike Naiditch, for whom Finley once worked for a summer at the highly charged Chicago Board of Options Exchange, describes him this way: “He’s a very smart, independent thinker. … He’s got much more than the basic building blocks to be successful in business. … He is highly motivated to achieve, and I think business is only one way he could do that if he wanted to. Basketball is another, and I’m sure there are many, many more.”

Adds Bill Hitt, Finley’s coach for four years at Chicago’s Proviso East High School: “He was in our honors track, academically, so he didn’t have a breeze schedule by any means. That goals thing is important: He wanted good grades and he got them, and I think a lot of that is his mom putting the right values into him.”

All this a relief in a year when a reporter feels obligated to make a preemptive call to the district attorney’s office when doing a profile of a highly touted UW athlete. Turns out, by the way, that Michael Finley’s been nearly clean as a whistle all along – even during his childhood in street-tough Maywood, Illinois.


And yet, Michael Finley is a human being, after all; and some of the people who know him best aren’t shy about acknowledging that fact.

“We spoiled him,” laughs his mother, who notes that his next-oldest sister is nine years his senior. “It’s not that he demands it; he just naturally assumes that whenever the house needs cleaning or his clothes need to be ironed or whatever, that it’ll be done for him automatically. I’m just mentioning that in case a prospective wife is listening.”

There was also the time Mrs. Finley was called to school after her son, then 14 or 15, inexplicably pulled the fire alarm between classes – the one time in his life that he’s ever gotten into serious trouble. “I told him, ‘I do not intend to ever be called back to that school as long as you live,’” she remembers scolding him afterwards. “And sure enough, I never was.”

Coach Hitt, meanwhile recalls Finley’s well-earned reputation as the penny-pincher on his star-studded high school team. Seems that after practice, for example, it was common for the players to ask the coaches to spring for juice from a locker room vending machine. One day, a assistant coach turned Finley down because all the coach had was a five-dollar bill.

“Mike told him, ‘That’s OK, coach, I’ll change it for you;’ and he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bunch of change,” Hitt says, chuckling. “I mean, we’d call that ‘a Mike.’ He always had this uncanny knack for squeezing a buck. … And, actually, I think it’ll be a tremendous quality when he reaches the next level.”

Finley, too, admits that he’s got faults. One is college academics amid a whirlwind practice, media and game schedule that, frankly, must come first with the big show – the NBA – just a few months from his grasp. His grade point average, at present, is only 2.75 – a B minus.

Another regret – the point during his freshman year when he threatened to quit the team and transfer after being benched for much of a last-second win against Northwestern. He credits two upperclassman teammates  -- former point guard Tracy Webster and senior forward Howard Moore -- with calming his brooding, post-game tantrum.

“For the most part, they said that I shouldn’t let just one game make my whole career,” he remembers. “They told me I was a better person than to just give up like that.”

He went on to prove it himself: honorable mention All Big Ten as a freshman, first-team all-conference the following year and second-team All American as a junior.

Last summer, he was a top scorer for the US team at the Goodwill Games, one of many off-season honors in recent years: USA Basketball’s Male Athlete of the Year in 1993, a pre-season candidate for this season’s national Player of the Year awards, and a first-team spot on nearly every All American squad you could imagine this fall.

“His game has few overt flaws,” writes Ray Ratto, of Street and Smith’s Basketball Digest. “He is that rarest of college commodities: a money player. When games are decided, Finley not only wants to be the key figure, but knows how to be the key figure. The second half of the equation is far harder than the first.”

The Basketball Times, meanwhile, calls him, “a marvelous amalgam of every physical attribute Dr. Naismith had in mind when he tacked up the peach basket.”

And so, as Michael Finley ponders life after what – barring something unforeseen – will almost certainly be a top spot in the NBA’s 1995 draft lottery, his fans are left with perhaps the one question that really matters:

Michael, how high can you fly?


It’s a little after noon on a warm November school day, and I meet Michael Finley as he’s leaving class in Babcock Hall, across University Avenue from Camp Randall Stadium and the Field House. He’s an ag econ and business management major, and his course load during the basketball season includes marketing, economics, business cooperatives and music appreciation.

At one point much later, I will ask him what he, a potential multi-millionaire, could possibly find interesting about, say, agricultural co-ops.

“It’s just the way money is made,” he will answer after a pause. “I like learning about what’s really going on – you know, being able to put your money in places where you’ve got a lot of legitimate faith.”

But, like I said, this exchange will come later – after we’ve gotten past the sports small talk that Finley must surely be prepared for each time he meets someone new. For now, Finley hasn’t so much as cracked a smile yet; and, to tell you the truth, his initial polite reserve is hard to penetrate – he reinforces it at one point by saying that there probably isn’t a question he hasn’t been asked by a reporter already.

I start out with where he’d be if he didn’t have to do an interview.

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Home, I guess.”

“Wanna just head over there, then?”

“All right.” Now he laughs sheepishly for just a second, glancing elsewhere as we approach Monroe Street. “If I’d known we were going back to my place, I would have cleaned up a little bit.”

And, really, who can blame him for being a little cautious with a reporter who wants to do an in-depth personality feature on him? Only a week or so before, the Athletic Department was swirling in media controversy over the arrest of football star Brent Moss for drug possession. And, judging from the tone of the interview arrangements with the department public relations office, I get the impression that Finley was gently advised to give me a big chunk of quality time if at all possible.

“Yeah,” assistant sports information director John Estes ruminates when I officially request an interview. “Yeah, Finley would be a good story, especially now. He’s a good kid. A really good kid. The only problem might be getting him to open up. But once he does, you’ll see that he’s really something special.”

As Finley and I walk from Babcock Hall, that much is crystal clear – at least to the silent, admiring student fans who gaze at him anonymously as we navigate the university’s ag sector. Every block or so, he discreetly waves or nods to a friend. I can’t help noticing that it’s a young woman every time.

“I grew up around ladies all my life,” he says – again later – when I ask about his reputation for being a respectful man of few words. He breaks into a big smile and shakes his head – the ice is beginning to melt. “I guess I don’t know if that’s good or bad sometimes.”


For the record, Finley’s apartment, which he shares with former UW football player James McDonald, is anything but disheveled, although it’s modest and sparsely decorated, and dominated by a long couch and a big-screen TV. In one corner of the room is a small picture of the 1992 US Olympic “Dream Team” – Jordan, Bird, Magic and the rest. Above the TV, which McDonald is watching when we arrive, is a graphic representation of a single black arm reaching down to help another.

McDonald and I shake hands, and I apologize for uprooting him. “Hey, no problem,” he answers as he heads for an adjacent bedroom – he’s been through all this before. It’s time for the official interview to begin.

My first question is about the glaring publicity and hectic daily schedule that leave even FINLEY unsure of where he’s supposed to be a week from today at this same time: “Michael, what do you do when you just want to get away from basketball, from everything?”

“I come home here and watch TV,” Finley answers, nodding from the couch to the huge screen before us. “I like watching basketball, which is relaxing because it’s not me out there. … I also like movies and mysteries – something with a distinct beginning and a distinct end. I don’t like things like soap operas that continue on and on.”

He also depends on his apartment inner sanctum when he’s psyching himself up for a game, and it’s the same routine for every one, preseason or NCAA tournament: While other players’ stomachs are doing frenetic flip-flops, Michael Finley is at peace enough to catch a few easy Zs at home.

“I try to get an hour to hour-and-10-minute nap before I get up to go to the gym. I’ve been doing that since high school,” he says. “I try to treat all the games the same, even the big ones, and do the same thing for every one.”

“So, it’s kinda like practicing free throws, then,” I say.

“Yeah, just like free throws. You try and do the same thing every time.”


Focus. By all accounts, that and a driven, goal-oriented work ethic are two things Michael Finley had long before he even dreamed of playing big-time hoops. Most people say these qualities were ingrained by his mother, the single parent, who reminded him early on that the game he’s always treasured would probably not be his ticket to the good life.

“For me, basketball wasn’t always my main priority in life,” he recalls. “Like, in high school, I wasn’t even that good. But I did feel that I wanted to go to college, and the only way I thought I could do that was through academics.”

No easy process, either, in a town like Maywood, where the world’s more dangerous temptations have lain waste to many a promising young career. For Bertha Finley’s part, one of the happiest days of her life was her son’s National Honor Society banquet in high school.

“That was the most thrilling thing. It was a better moment than anything he’s done playing basketball,” she says. “Mike was the only basketball player there and one of only two or three black kids in the whole room.”

She adds: “Some mothers I know warned me that you can’t do nothing with a son as a single mom. … But I say if you instill the right values, they grow up to know right from wrong. I did it: I raised three kids, and I think I did a good job of it.”

Still, Michael Finley loved basketball, and one of HIS fondest memories is of his sisters, both high school cheerleaders, getting him into games for free. His first hero: Glenn “Doc” Rivers, the future Marquette University, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks star. Other future NBA standouts – Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre among them – played in the neighborhood as well.

And then it happened after a journeyman’s first two high school seasons: Michael Finley GREW – five or six inches between his sophomore and junior years alone.

That made all the difference in his game, and Finley got his chance in the starting lineup when an ankle injury sidelined one of Proviso East’s established stars, Donnie Boyce. Boyce is now a potential 1995 Big Eight Player of the Year at the University of Colorado.

Finley, as they say, never looked back. By the time he graduated, both he and Boyce had been named Illinois All-Staters from the sixth-ranked high school team in the nation, along with Sherrell Ford, now of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Unlike his higher-profile teammates, though, Finley bloomed too late to be as heavily recruited by major universities early on – only Northwestern and Wisconsin were interested from the Big Ten. He committed to UW-Madison at the end of a stellar junior year, and, looking back, his high school coach thinks that might have been jumping the gun: If Finley had waited until he was a senior to commit, other offers would have surely come.

“Our kids were pretty good athletes, and most could dunk at an early age,” Bill Hitt remembers. “The first time for Michael was at about the end of his sophomore year, and when it happened, the kids were all kind of laughing at him. But between Michael’s  junior and senior year, he had surpassed people like Donnie Boyce and Sherrell Ford in jumping ability.”

He also got the reputation as the thinking man’s player: “It’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another to understand how the game should be played,” Hitt says. “Our system is pretty rigid, but after a few games, Michael would be coming back down the court saying, ‘Coach, how about if we try this or that?’ He definitely knew what he was doing out there.”

The rest, as many reporters will no doubt say by the time Finley ends his career at Wisconsin, is history.


By now, Finley and I have spent three hours together – most recently over burgers and fries at Jingles, a tavern located between the Field House and his apartment.

During that time, he’s become a little more expansive, although it is only by reviewing reams of interview notes later that I actually start to feel like I know something substantial about the man. At this point, he is still mostly Michael Finley, the basketball All American – with his cards still casually held close to his vest.

Here’s a sample of some of the other things we’ve talked about:

Why he chose UW: “It was the best for me as far as getting a chance to come in and play right away – and not only to be happy as an athlete, but academically. It also wasn’t too far from my home. My family is really closely knit.”

What it’s like to be an African American student-athlete in Madison after growing up in a predominantly black community: “A lot of people assume a lot about black athletes. Many people see us as athletes and nothing else. People automatically think you come from a bad background, or that your had some relationship with drugs or whatever, and that’s not always true. For sure, sometimes that’s the situation for a few. But for a lot of others, college is their opportunity to get an education and go back someday and help the places they came from.”

“So, yeah, it’s been a big adjustment. … But I think it was good for me to come here. I’ve met a lot of people from outside my own race, and you get a chance to see past any stereotypes that you might have had yourself and to prepare yourself for life. I feel real comfortable here now. That’s one of the reasons I came back for my senior year.”

Other reasons for his decision to return to the UW as a senior, rather than try his luck early in the NBA: “(Former) coach (Stu) Jackson had a lot of contacts, and he told me what people in the NBA were thinking about me – about where I stood in the draft. I knew that I was capable of being drafted in the mid to lower first round, depending on the team. I felt that I wanted another year if I could to work on my overall game – ball handling, my ability to drive to my left and overall strength, mostly. The physical aspect of the NBA is the main thing. In college, you might play 32 games if you’re lucky, but the pros is 82 games – and that’s not including the playoffs. That can put a beating on your body.”

His close friend Brent Moss, who was dropped by the UW football team after being caught with crack cocaine: “I was really, really shocked to hear what happened, and he’s still a friend. If he ever needs something, he can come to me. You know, when you’re in the limelight, a lot of people are wanting you to mess up; and I think that’s kind of what happened to a certain extent. Michael Jordan, for example – if they find just one mistake, they make a big deal out of it. But you shouldn’t be treated any different than if you were a – quote – normal person, because that’s exactly what you really are.”

Injuries, potentially the one thing that could interrupt his march to the pro spotlight: “”Never had one,” he says, looking away abruptly and pointedly knocking wood on the tavern table when I bring the subject up. It’s a telling act that speaks more than any words could, and I move on to another topic as soon as I see it. I, for one, don’t want to be a jinx.


Then the interview winds to a close, and we decide to pack it in and get on with the rest of our days. On the way back to Finley’s apartment, we bump into roommate James McDonald, who is talking to a young journalism student along the Monroe Street sidewalk. We all joke around a bit, and then Finley and I continue on by ourselves.

At Finley’s apartment, I ask him if I can call later if any more questions come to mind, and he assures me he’ll be available. We shake hands, and then he asks me, “Listen, can I give you a ride somewhere or anything?”

“No thanks,” I answer, but inside I’m thinking something else: Speaking for everybody who has ever touched a basketball, dreamed big-league dreams and FELT the magnificent sound of rich leather slapping basket twine, the only thing I’ve got to say is, “Michael, we get a hell of a ride every time we watch you play.”


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